Thursday, October 6, 2011
Bert Jansch - Avocet
In observance of Bert Jansch's passing yesterday, I think it's fitting to feature what's probably my favorite Bert Jansch album, 1979's Avocet. Though Bert had already flirted with pure instrumentals on his solo albums, as far as I know Avocet is his only all-instrumental album. While it may not get the attention Bert's earlier solo records generated, I think it's a fine showcase for Bert's abilities as a guitarist as well as a composer, and a sort of detour I always wish he would have pursued further on other albums.
The lengthy title track occupies the first side of the album and is thus its centerpiece. It's easy to realize right away that this is what music critics love to call a "pastoral" album (I wouldn't be surprised to hear the words "very British" either). The focus, of course, is on Jansch's fingerpicked acoustic guitar, supported by all-around double bass badass Danny Thompson and English folk journeyman Martin Jenkins on violin, flute, mandolin and mandocello (don't get to hear that one very often), who often carries the songs' melodic burden. Jansch's playing is typically beautiful, seamlessly superimposing arpeggios, single-note lines and multi-string leads on top of his characteristic Travis picking. I'm always struck by how understated yet impressive Jansch's playing is when viewed close-up; it doesn't sound like he's showing off, but the amount of string bending, pattern-changing and fluid stylistic variation is constant and awesome in its scope. "Avocet" meanders gently through its many parts, providing plenty of melody to anchor the musicianship--though it's not the most focused extended instrumental, it manages to weave a recurring melody across major/minor subsections that span folk, jazz and more of a renaissance flavor before gently coming to rest with Jansch's uniquely mellow-yet-somehow-violent plucking.
Call me a rogue, but the album's second side sounds even better to my ears--the shorter song lengths seem to lend themselves to more distinctive structures. "Lapwing" transcends Jansch's rudimentary piano technique to deliver a pensive minor melody, while "Bittern" introduces a hypnotic, swaying waltz melody and showcases Thompson's righteous bass skills (I can't decide if he's simply an awesome bassist, or it's just that he's miked hotter than most, or [more likely] both). Things get jazzy on the darker "Kingfisher," which features some of the album's more surprising chord changes. The 5/4 time of "Osprey" and the lush lyricism and guitar/mandolin doubling "Kittewake" close the album at its most melodic, proving that, though the title and mood of the disc connote nature documentary background music, there's more than enough substance here to justify close listening. After reacquainting my ears with these songs, I think Avocet is a fitting representation of Bert Jansch the musician--unassuming and humble, yet full of complex and effortless beauty--you just have to take the time to pay attention.